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Script Review: JOHN Q, written by James Kearns

Reviewed by Darwin Mayflower



NOTE: The screenplays we review are often in development and may experience many rewrites, some could end up being completely different than what is reviewed here. It is our hope that our reviews generate more interest in the film. Thank you.

The plot of JOHN Q. is brazen in its conventionality. Its one-sentence, sell-it-in-a-pitch cradle is its worst enemy.

It is about a man who takes a hospital hostage so his son can get a heart transplant. But dont run away. It is a testament to the writing of James Kearns, who, with a bit more experience will be a fine writer, that, in just a few short scenes, makes the early proceedings remarkably effecting and creates empathy and understanding.

JOHN Q.s opening works because James Kearns shows simple people dealing with simple problems. John Quincy Archibald and his family are so average (as are their problems) that the author doesnt even bother to tell us where they live; he says instead they live in a "middle American town."

John is a hardworking man with more bills than he has money. His car is repod. It was either his house or his car and he made the decision. John goes out looking for a second job and finds that theres nothing out there for a man such as himself (that is, not college-educated). He leads a happy life, though; he has an extraordinary kid and a loving wife. Things may be tough right now, but John knows it will work itself out.

Then tragedy strikes. Johns son, Mike, collapses while playing baseball. They rush him to the hospital and are shocked to discover Mike has a congenital heart defect. His heart is enlarged and leaking fluid into his lungs. Hes going to need a heart transplant. This, of course, takes money -- a lot of it. John assumed he was insured, but the factory he works at lowered his status to "tier two" (not top coverage) and hes only allowed twenty thousand dollars for "catastrophe coverage." The procedure Mike needs will run a quarter of a million dollars.

John makes the rounds of options: State, County, Medicaid, Welfare -- nothings a go. No one will cover the surgery. The hospital his son is in turns the boys stay into a "cash case." Meaning everything they do for him -- including his day-to-day meds and the occupation of the bed hes in -- must be paid upfront and in cash. John sells everything he has: his pickup, his wedding ring, the furniture in his house. Its not enough. The hospital plans to release Mike and they tell John it would be prudent to spend time with his son and say his good-byes: Mike is certain to die.

John is stuck. He doesnt have the money -- theres simply no way he can raise so much -- and he knows that these people he sees every day -- these doctors -- can save his sons life and wont. Because of money.

Your department made seventy million dollars last year, John tells the cardiologist Dr. Turner, cant you perform my sons operation on credit? Ill pay it off -- you have my word as a man.

It doesnt work. No money, no life for Mike.

John, unable to face the loss of his son over something as ephemeral as money, takes a gun to the hospital and demands his son be put on the heart-donor list or hell murder the handful of people in the ER.

This, as a famous man once said, is where our story really begins.

Its too bad JOHN Q. dissolves into a hostage-drama movie. It really swept me up before that. I felt for John and I identified with him. The writer was able to tell me who John was, show me the love for his family, and make me like him in just a few scenes. I wanted Mike to get the transplant as much as John did and I cursed the bureaucracy of hospitals nowadays.

The author loses me when he dips into such conventional territory. What is this -- the six hundredth take on DOG DAY AFTERNOON? A man takes a place hostage. The media gets involved. Its on the news. The man talks to a negotiator. A support builds for him. Et cetera, et cetera. A recent example was the John Travolta-Dustin Hoffman film MAD CITY.

This script is quite a bit like that film, actually. Because John Q. is your average workingman and hes taken up a stance the people can get behind. Hes the little man representing the speck that is a blue-collar worker among the mass of corporations making their life decisions.

I wanted John to take his cause seriously. Get someone involved and make a difference through the law. What does taking a hospital hostage solve? Nothing. Should his kid survive hell have a father in jail. What John does is irrational and stupid. As much as you can empathize, you cant condone it or support him. Hes lost us. Hes desperate, sure, but hes breaking the law and, now, what makes him any better than the bastardly doctors and HMO string-pullers? The hard truth is that nothing has ever been helped with the barrel of a gun; that invariably worsens things.

Script Sale Facts - provided by

A Mid-six figure sale to Twentieth Century Fox and Island World , Kearns was repped by APA. The script sold in November, 1993. This property was sold to Columbia by Island World and then to New Line for high six figures.

John locks himself inside the hospital and the authors moving script grinds to a halt. Instead of commiserating with Johns wife over the dying Mike, we see SWAT team members arrive and watch cops set up shop.

John inevitably talks to those hes holding hostage and they agree with him: things have to change, doctors are evil, damn the HMOs, etc. What happens is that the script becomes an op-ed piece, with each character barking some grievance. The author certainly has something to say -- you can feel the heat of his words -- but it just sounds awkward for some guy in the ER to be the mouthpiece (sounding like hes the local New York Times writer). It comes off stilted, staged and phony.

I also dont quite get Kearns views. He unblinkingly objurgates doctors. Painting them as base, money-grubbing demons. He rests the blame almost totally on their shoulders. He doesnt seem to understand that doctors hands are tied by HMOs and that doctors battle for proper care for their patients. Do some doctors refuse treatment for a person to get an HMO bonus check? Sure. But the majority dont. They slog through the muck every day and fight valiantly. Why Kearns attacks them the way he does is bizarre.

Kearns uses misconceptions in his aspersions, too. Someone at some point says that hospitals turn away people who are about to die. I dont know why people believe this, but its not true. A hospital cannot turn away a dying patient. "They see youre not insured and send you out the back door," someone says. Why in the world would they do this? If a person isnt insured he or she is automatically signed up for Medicaid and the government foots the bill.

In all fairness, from all the revision-stars marking this fourth draft, I have to believe Kearns was ordered by the director and producers to inject as much doctor-bashing as he could fit. The audience will have to be blindsided with hate to get on Johns side. At one point in the script the people even go off on an anti-gun jag. (HMOs and guns? Talk about easy targets.)

JOHN Q. follows the DOG DAY AFTERNOON rules of hostage movies so closely that you dont really even have to read the script to know whats going to happen. JOHN Q. drowns in cliches. Theres the caring cop, the hard-ass cop who wants John shot and killed (the most overused excuse in history -- its an election year -- is used once again), the ruthless reporter exploits John and his situation, the hostages start to like John and help him out. Its all there and its unfortunate, because -- Im telling you -- the start of this script was really, really good and I was stunned by how it got to me.

JOHN Q. comes to its logical conclusion. Mike needs that heart or hell die. Theres one person in the ER whos a match. John, of course, and if he kills himself the doctors will have no choice but to use the good heart inside his chest.

I can hear the dramatic music now. Will John kill himself? Daaaah...dah-dah...daaaaah!

James Kearns makes a truly odd choice in the structure of the script: he opens it with a horrific car crash. We see it again later. And when John is about to kill himself we get another look, and this time the medics are there taking the body from the car. Think this "beautiful woman" will be the donor Mike needs? Well, duh! Showing us this makes Johns so-called "suicide attempt" a boring waiting game. We know someone will rush in with the news Mike has a donor. Kearns was in a tight spot, I know: do you show this from the beginning (thereby killing the suspense) or have the donor-heart spring up at the end miraculously? I know people will roll their eyes when the heart shows up, but telling us from the very first scene that Mike will eventually have a donor kills what could be a pretty emotional scene. John places a gun to his head; his love for his son is so intense he will end his life right now to further his. Could be a nice moment. But not with the knowledge it will never come to its tragic finish.

JOHN Q. has been filmed and will be released in about seven months. It has an odd-choice director: Nick Cassavetes (SHES SO LOVELY). Nick, who recently co-wrote BLOW, is a better actor than he is director, and while Im no advocate for MTV-style confetti-cut directing, those scenes inside the hospital where no one moves are looking pretty boring on the screen in my mind.

The material has pulled together a great cast: Denzel Washington plays titular hero John Q. The role is essentially written for Denzel. Average guy, tough spot, pushed into action. Denzels penchant for fiery, steely-eyed, grounded intensity will work magic with the role. Robert Duvall plays Frank Grimes (a cheeky reference to HOMERS ENEMY?) -- the good cop who wants to save John. James Woods (more intelligent than the character hes playing) is Dr. Turner. Anne Heche takes on a small role with administrative supervisor Carolyn Clayborne (the part has been renamed Rebecca Payne). Ray Liotta is Monroe, the cop out to end John Q. before things get out of control. And finally Eddie Griffin, the comedian who hasnt yet found his groove in films, is one of the ER occupants.

I cant say I hold out much hope for the finished film. Reading these platitudes is one thing. Staring at Eddie Griffin in a medium shot while doing it is another. Cassavetes didnt exactly show oodles of style, either, in his two films.

I dont understand the tendency by writers to take their material down the most obvious route. Why does John Q. have to take a hospital hostage? Couldnt he become a crusader and get actual change -- like, say, a new law? Or, okay, he takes the place hostage, it ends quickly, and he becomes a celebrity of sorts and he uses this slight renown to fight the HMOs. Anything but another DOG DAY AFTERNOON rehash.

Most frustrating of all is that the author lets John off the hook (in court). Thereby justifying and condoning what he did. And thats plain wrong. Hey, laws arent fun. We know this. But theyre put in place for a reason. The biggest being to protect us. There was a similar situation in the movie and book A TIME TO KILL. Sam Jacksons daughter is raped by two vile rednecks (its always the rednecks, isnt it?). Furious and doubting the system will deal with them, he guns them down in cold blood. In both the book and movie hes let off. So this says what? That you shouldnt even give the system a chance -- not even wait to see if someone is really guilty -- and kill whoever you feel like? Its specious thinking, obviously. Everyone loves Hollywood movies, where the wronged man exacts revenge. But this is real life and in real life you do not, under any circumstances, take the law into your own hands. All this can lead to is anarchy.

John is let off with a one-year/time-served sentence and is applauded for what he did. So I guess whenever youre mad and not going to take it anymore you should pick up a gun and wave it around -- take a few people hostage -- and youll be heard. The fact that lives are in danger and youre breaking the law shouldnt bother you, I guess.

Kearns ideals are noble, but theyre also naive and his head is in the wrong place. Blaming doctors is the same false reasoning that causes people to despise the selfless police officers out there. Committing a crime to battle what you think is an injustice makes as much sense as hitting your hand with a hammer to alleviate pain.

Attack the right people, and do it in the right way. Otherwise youre no good to anyone.

James Kearns had me, had me hard, for about thirty pages. Its extraordinarily rare for a script to possess a spark of real life. With real people moving in a real time, with real problems and emotions. Kearns was able to do that. Its a shame he threw it away for a bland follow-through in a script that could have been something poignant.

As I said, I dont hold out much hope for the film. But I do for this screenwriter. He got done what so few are able to do. And for that I will be around the next time he decides to tell a tale.

-- Darwin Mayflower.

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